Parents and children keep tapping on apps and social media, because they’re designed to build habitual behaviour. Once you get hooked by persuasive technology, it means that your brain’s neurotransmitters have been damaged and become dysfunctional. Neurotransmitters are a type of chemical messenger which transmits signals across a chemical synapse, from one neuron to another “target” neuron. Phone addiction ruins the way our brains work, causing chemical imbalance that could lead to severe anxiety, tiredness and depression.
There are two types of neurotransmitter that are important in the matter of digital overuse and screen time problems: GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) and dopamine. Here are some useful facts to know, before you check your phone’s notifications again.
“Our product is a slot machine that plays you”
Nowadays tech companies are not hiding the fact that they always try to consume as much of our time and conscious attention as possible. Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook admitted: “We give you a dopamine hit. It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to children’s brains.” They hired psychologists and “attention-engineers” to glue us to screens and click the “right” buttons. Such tech-companies as Google and Apple have spent decades commercializing our attention and advancing addictive design. And now our brains can’t quit our gadgets, because we played a dangerous game with a dopamine.
What dopamine does in the brain
As a neurotransmitter dopamine helps to control our brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It was discovered in 1957 as one of the major transmitters, which carry urgent messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in the body. For instance, thanks to dopamine we know to get a glass of water when we feel thirsty. In the 1980’s, after the experiments on rats by Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, showed that dopamine levels impact on desire, ambition, addiction and sex drive. The scientist showed that, inside the midbrain, dopamine relates to the reward we receive for an action. For the research, he placed pieces of apple behind a screen and saw a huge dopamine response when the rat bit into the food. The dopamine process anticipates a reward to an action, and if the reward is met, boosts the behaviour to become a habit.
Then he found that rewarding it in a random schedule is the strongest way to reinforce a learned behaviour in rats. So, when you’re favoured by luck, dopamine is released. To compare, look at the randomness of the Facebook feed. All social media apps today use “digital confetti” to give the user what he wants at random intervals.
The power of the dopamine system is very familiar to drug addicts and smokers. Every habit-forming synthetic drug affects the dopamine system by dispersing more and more dopamine than usual. Overusing is the consequence of wanting more and more pleasure to feel normal.
“These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction. When it happens we lose our willpower. Evolution hasn’t prepared brains for these drugs. We are abusing a useful and necessary system,” – Wolfram Schultz explains.
More recent research of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, showed that dopamine levels are one of the key differentiators between human beings and other apes. Human striatum produce three times more dopamine than in the ape striatum. This fact could contribute to human-specific aspects of cognition or behaviour.
Sue’s brain and phone addiction
Here’s a short story about a girl, Sue, and her screen addiction. It explains how the brain works with addiction. It is cycling to get more dopamine again and again:
1. First, Sue is looking at her smartphone, and interacts with a “rewarding stimulus.” A rewarding stimulus is something that provokes an action.
2. So the girl wants “to check her device.”
Rewarding stimuli include:
- natural rewards: food, water, sex etc.
- synthetic (more harmful addictive substances): cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines.
Just looking at her gadget reminds Sue of some “likes”, and the reward is enough to cause a reaction.
- Sue has taken the phone in her hands and goes to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or an online game. When the “reward pathway” is stimulated, it triggers the release of dopamine.
- Dopamine tells the brain to pay attention: something is about to happen. In Sue’s case, she is on her way to check notifications, get new “likes” and new messages from social media.
- Sue’s brain heeds dopamine’s message, shifting into a state of wanting, expecting, and desiring pleasure. Certain stimuli, such as addictive screen time, can trigger the release of more dopamine than natural rewards. It floods the brain with an acute sense of craving. Every time the girl Sue needs to receive more and more dopamine to feel pleasure, if she doesn’t receive it, she feels a similarly acute disappointment.
- Over time, the brain adjusts and becomes less sensitive to dopamine, meaning that Sue physically cannot experience as much pleasure as she did before. She’ll need more of the rewarding stimulus (screen time, “likes”, facebook feed, online gaming) to feel the same effect (a phenomenon known as “tolerance”). Eventually, Sue will need to interact with her phone (rewarding stimuli) just to feel normal.
Abusing our emotions
When you’re already addicted to your phone, another neurotransmitter can crash the brain’s functioning. Gamma aminobutyric acid is a chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. This chemical slows down signals in the brain. Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, carried out some research with teenagers, who had been diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction. They were put through a test MRS, which indicates the chemical formulation of people’s brains.
It found that the ratio of GABA to other neurotransmitters (creatine and glutamate) was off. The effects could be linked to problems with processing information and emotions, including sleep disorders and productivity.
Scientists say that one more important issue in screen addiction is multitasking. Families are integrating gadgets into their lives, and associate them with time-saving behaviour – multitasking.
There are at least three different forms of multi-tasking that involve devices:
- within medium (switching among multiple windows on a smartphone or computer)
- between media (texting on Facebook while watching Youtube or playing online game)
- between media and human beings (taking a selfie while out to dinner with family).
There is ongoing concern over how this affects our ability to concentrate and avoid distraction. Multitasking may decrease productivity because users take time to reorient after a transition to a different activity and become cognitively fatigued, which slows their rate of work. Also, it makes it more difficult to create memories in the brain that can be accurately retrieved later.
Anyway, Kidslox is always on the side of your brain’s health. Our parental controls can help protect your kids and all the family from phone and internet addiction. Schedule your day, set daily limits and control a child’s gadgets remotely by limiting their screen usage. The Kidslox team wants our children to have balance in their brains.